Seeing and Hearing Jesus
In the Old Testament, the nations worship gods they can see (their idols), but Israel worships the God they can hear (“Hear, O Israel, the LORD your God, the LORD is one” [Dt 6:4]). Isn’t something remarkable taking place when we watch a film in which God is onscreen? If Jesus Christ “is the image of the invisible God,” as Paul says in Colossians 1:15, then each depiction of Jesus we see in film is an image of the image of the invisible God.
In the Incarnation, the Word that was to be heard could now be seen. The Apostle John emphasizes both when he says, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon...concerning the word of life...that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you...” (1 Jn 1:1–3). Jesus Christ is that image, the invisible God made visible.
The weight of this word-image dynamic comes to bear on artistic depictions of Jesus. I’m focusing on cinematic portrayals of Jesus because in film we’re not watching a static image, but an actor lending voice and personality. In other words, the traits about Jesus that become crucial for a successful performance are the traits the Gospel writers did not feel important enough to include in their testimony about Him. The filmmakers are saying, “This is our take on Jesus,” and their artistic depiction can leave an impression on us that feels weightier than the impression of Jesus we get when we read inspired testimony about Him.
I can remember reading an article about viewers’ reactions to The Passion of the Christ, and one Christian woman said, “I’ll never take communion the same way again.” Such comments were commonplace when the movie was released. Taking communion changed, not because of the preached word of Christ, but because of an image of Christ. Does this tip the scales in favor of image?
Now that Jesus has ascended, faith still comes by hearing (Rom 10:17). And yet when God became a man, He gave us a glimpse of our future, when our faith will become sight. In the end, “we will see Him as He is” (1 Jn 3:2). Paul says that this future appearing of Christ is our “blessed hope” (Ti 2:13). These depictions shape our conception of Jesus, and therefore, our eschatological hope. Watching Max Von Sydow’s Spock-life portrayal of Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told might give you the idea that Jesus was an emotionally detached mystic. Willem Dafoe’s performance as a doubt-filled, merely human Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christcould move you ever so slightly toward the belief that Jesus had to be convinced to die for us. What hope is there in the return of those Christs?
Movies about Jesus are a tradition almost as old as film itself. With last year’s The Son of God and this year’s TV movie Killing Jesus, clearly the desire to depict Jesus onscreen has not waned. Which Jesus commands your affections? The Jesus you see on screen, or the Jesus you hear in the Word?